Tuesday, July 1, 2008

11 MARCH 2008: LHASA

The last post on the China trip was on 1 May 2008, it had been 2 months since. In between that time, the events of 5.12 Sichuan Earthquake made it really difficult to continue writing about this trip. I was initially in shock as I actually passed through the Wenchuan area, the epicenter of this quake, on the way back to Chengdu from Jiuzhaigou. The photos and scenes from the news reporting had a familiar ring to it, I just could not come to grips that I had passed through those roads before and the scale of the damage caused by the EQ. Having also made some new friends on this trip who were either living or studying in Chengdu area, I was naturally concerned about their well-being. I did managed to stay in contact through IM and blogs with most of them all these while.
I shall re-start my trip recollection and hope to finish it as quickly as I can to nail down the details before memory fails me..............

Day 8: 11 March 2008
Itinerary: Lhasa
(Potala Palace-Yang Ba Jin hotsprings)

Woke up really early this morning (5.00 am) as I had planned to checkout if it was at all possible to catch any local public transport to get to Namtso Lake. Went to the main roads of the Jokhang/Bakkhor area and tried to locate the bus that was going to the nearest town to Namtso Lake. Managed to find it and gotten a seat but the bus did not move off as scheduled at 7 am because there was not enough passengers. Waited till 8.30 am and decided to drop the idea of going altogether as it was already impossible to catch the one bus departing to Namsto Lake from that town. The choice would be to take in Potala Palace in the morning and then see if it was at all possible to find any reasonably priced transport to Yang Ba Jin (羊八井)hotspring in the afternoon.

I walked towards the direction of Potala to take photos of the Palace from the open square opposite as well as from Yao Wang Shan (药王山)at the corner end of the square as they only open to visitors at around 10 am. Unfortunately don't know how the camera was accidently set to low resolution and I realise it only at the top entrance of Potala! The photos taken of Potala's exterior from the Square opposite and Yao Wang Shan were not up to scratch! No photography is allowed after entering the main entrance to the Palace itself.

View from the open square opposite

View from Yao Wang Shan

View of Yao Wang Shan

The climb up to the main palace entrance was quite taxing, I had to rest more than 4 to 5 times along the steps as I had difficulty catching my breath and also felt a little light-headed due to the high altitude. I made a friend, Yang along the way up. He came into Lhasa yesterday by train. He was much fitter than me and adapted better to the high altitude than I was. I struggled on the climb up the stairs and he was kind enough to wait along with me during my rest-stops.

This is the new friend, Yang, who accompanied me on my struggle up the steps.

Potala is truly a magnificent structure, once you reached the top entrance all the struggles on the way up will no longer seem like a struggle at all! At least that was how I felt.
Although some areas were not opened for access, the tour was still an awe-inspiring experience. I was lucky that a local group had a tour guide with them and I managed to get some insights into each shrine. I was having some difficulty catching my breath moving through the palace due to the high altitude. Most areas were quite dark and eerie especially those which had the remains of each of the past Dalai Lamas. The ventilation of the palace was not that great and coupled with the burning of those specialty waxed candles made the tour through the palace quite a trying experience!
I had to stop and rest for a while to catch my breath quite a number of times. It was truly amazing the weight of gold that were used to construct the individual statues and tombs that contained the embalmed bodies, remains and belongings of the respective past Dalai Lamas. I wonder will it reach a breaking point in future that may put serious stress on the structure of the Potala. Another interesting point of note is the mystic of Tibetan medical science especially on embalming techniques, which had existed for centuries!

My impression of Potala? It was like a holy resting place of past Dalai Lamas than anything else. More a holy palace for relics than a temple or shrine for worshipping. This is just my own opinion as I had little knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism. I like Jokhang better as a place for worshipping.

The way down was much more easier and it was through the back entrance. I parted company with Yang and proceeded to make one round of turning the prayer wheels around the perimeter at the foot of Potala. It was a really BIG round and I think it took much more than half an hour to complete with the large number of pilgrims.

After Potala, I contemplated between going to Norbulinga (Summer Palace) and finding a reasonable taxi to the hotspring at Yang Ba Jin on the outskirt of Lhasa. In between I found my way to the Tibet Musuem but it was closed, not sure why. In the end I grabbed a quick lunch and after many enquires with various taxi drivers, finally settled on one for RMB350 (2-way) and so I set off for the hour and a half road journey to Yang Ba Jin. The scenery along the way was surreal! I also caught sight of a part of the railway line and highway that linked Tibet to the rest of China.

I never imagined I would immerse myself in a hotsping at 4300m above sea level but it happened at Yang Ba Jin. There were only a handful fo visitors, the taxi driver and myself had virtually both the indoor and outdoor pools to ourselves! The entrance was RMB60 for the indoor pool, slightly cheaper if you opt for the outdoor pool. Paying for the indoor pool allows you to use the outdoor one as well but not the other way round. The disposable swimming trunk was RMB15, you can bring your own if you want. Be warned! The toilets and lockers were in terrible conditions and also the stench of the toilets could be felt if you swim too close to half way of the indoor pool.

The hotspring water was just amazing! The feeling was exceptional, I could feel the pores of my entire body opening up and the accompanying biting sensation. My whole body also felt very oily while in the waters, possibly a reaction from the natural minerals (sulphur?) of the waters which was pumped out of the grounds (at 4300m above sea level!) and into the pools. This was my first hotspring experience and I think none other could beat this. It was very relaxing with no crowd and having virtually a private pool to yourself! After I dried myself, I could see red pore marks all over my body.

Hotspring (Indoor pool)

Hotspring (Outdoor pool) @4300M above sea-level


Two construction workers boarded our taxi at the hotspring on the way back to Lhasa, I had an agreement with the taxi driver that he could pick up any passengers along the way and make the extra income. Both of them were from Sichuan province and we had a little chat on the long drive back to Lhasa. We reached back to Lhasa at around 6.30pm, I had a rest at the hotel before proceeding back to take photos of Potala after the skies were dark. It was an amazing sight with all the lights surrounding the Palace.

On the way back to the hotel, I popped by the International Youth Hostel to have a look. It was the other location to stay which I had in mind initially. It was much more closer to Potala and seems very popular and crowded. There was a notice board with postings for shared road trips to other areas of Tibet that required another permit. This would be a better choice to stay if you were planning on going to the outer areas of Tibet. There was a supermarket-cum-departmental store along the same stretch of road.

I walked back to the Jokhang area and popped into a Sichuan eatery for my simple dinner of minced meat noodles and dumpling soup (龙爪手). The servings were huge and I could not finish the noodles after finishing the dumpling soup! On the way back to the hotel, there was some commotion around the Jokhang area and troops and police were assembled in great numbers. Only much later (after leaving Lhasa) did I know there was some unrest that night. I walked back to the hotel via Jokhang square/Bakkhor Street and I felt nothing strange. There were so many policemen around that I actually felt quite safe to walk late into the night.

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